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'Where Should I Live?'
In a terrifying summer, a search for safety
I’ve given a lot of talks about climate change over the years—that’s part of what organizers do. And I can predict with great confidence the questions that people will raise their hands to ask. “Isn’t the real problem overpopulation?” (Not really; most population growth is coming in places that use incredibly small amounts of energy). Or “what about nuclear?” (keep the plants we’ve got open if we safely can; new ones are incredibly slow and expensive to build, though someday a generation of yet newer ones could conceivably change that; in the meantime rely on the nuclear reactor hanging a safe 93 million miles up in the sky).
I can also predict the questions people will ask later, privately, as the crowd drifts out of the auditorium. One—”is it okay for me to have a kid?”—is almost unbearably painful; no one should have to ask it. The other—”where should I move”—is a (little) less traumatized. And I think it’s on a lot of minds, especially right now, as it becomes clear that many parts of our earth won’t be habitable going forward. As I tried to explain in a recent book, global heating is systematically shrinking the size of the board on which humans can play the game of life.
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On the one hand, the question implies a certain self-centered approach to the climate crisis—how do I avoid this huge communal disaster—as well as a certain quanta of privilege: most people in this world, especially the ones who really need a new home, lack the resources or the legal ability to pick up and move. Still, we each get one life and we need to live it somewhere.
It’s easier, actually, to figure out where not to live. Phoenix may be the fastest-growing big city in the country, but anyone who moves there after this summer is not paying attention: 31 straight days over 110 Fahrenheit, and emergency rooms filled with people who burned themselves by…falling on the sidewalk. But it’s not just obvious places, like the middle of the desert. Last week, at four thousand feet in the Andes the temperature topped 95 degrees—in winter. (Weather historian Maximiliano Herrera described it as “one of the extreme events the world has ever seen”). Or take Athens is one of those places we like to call a cradle of western civilization, but two years ago the city’s “chief heat officer” was already warning it might be becoming uninhabitable; last month, during the longest heatwave in the city’s history, authorities closed the Acropolis to tourists in the afternoons.
Even in places used to dealing with extremes, life is getting harder; India’s monsoon, for instance, is ever more “violent and unpredictable.” In Himachal Pradesh, for instance, “the state has already received 1,200 percent more than its annual rainfall, according to data from the India Meteorological Department. Landslides and floods have claimed nearly 100 lives.” I could muster these kinds of statistics for virtually any place you want to name: a recent study found that every time the temperature rises another tenth of a degree Celsius, another 140 million humans find themselves living outside what scientists call the “human climate niche,” the zone with temperatures where our species flourishes.
But as this summer—with the increase in global temperature at least temporarily topping the 1.5 degrees Celsius that the world swore to avoid in Paris—demonstrates, no place is really safe, even within those supposedly habitable zones. I live in Vermont, in the mountains of the American northeast, which has sometimes been seen as a “climate haven” because it’s at a high enough latitude to avoid the worst heatwaves, isolated from a stormy ocean coast, and historically wet. But this summer we’ve had too much water: some of the worst flooding in the country. We’re not that far from the overheated north Atlantic, and so wave after wave of unrelenting rain has descended on the state, drowning, among other things, the main street of our capital city (previously best known for being the only state capital without a McDonald’s). Another round of thunderstorms struck over the weekend; my county got six inches of rain, triggering landslides and closing the roads in and out of town. It turns out that steep mountain slopes and narrow mountain valleys combine with an overheated atmosphere (remember the 21st century’s most important physical fact: warm air holds more water vapor; July set a new record for U.S. thunderstorms) to produce crazy flooding. I was away during this round of meteorological depravity, and it was hard to be seeing pictures of roads I travel every day wiped out.
There is no safe place.
And yet I remain glad I live where I do, not because it’s protected from climate change, but because it’s at least a little bit more equipped to deal with it. And that, in turn, is because it has high levels of social trust. Only thirty-eight per cent of Americans say they mostly or completely trust their neighbors, but a 2018 Vermont survey found that seventy-eight per cent of residents think that “people in my neighborhood trust each other to be good neighbors”; sixty-nine per cent of Vermonters said that they knew most of their neighbors, compared with twenty-six per cent of Americans in general. Those levels of social trust help explain, I think, why the state had the lowest level of fatalities from covid, much lower than its neighboring states and much lower than other small rural states with similarly homogeneous populations. Everyone wore masks, everyone got vaccinated. In the same way, when this summer’s floods hit, people came together, reenacting the surge of mutual aid that came after Hurricane Irene similarly drenched the state in 2011.
This is not an argument to move to Vermont. Among other things, the state had the lowest housing vacancy rate in the country before this summer’s flooding wiped out more of the state’s affordable housing stock. And Vermont has its share of problems, some of them rooted in an aging population resistant to progress of any kind—there are times when I think its de facto motto is “Change Anything You Want Once I’m Dead,” which explains among other things the de facto moratorium on building the wind turbines that could help provide us cleaner power.
Instead it is an argument to get to work building that kind of social trust in as many places as possible, because we’re going to need it. We’ve come through 75 years where having neighbors was essentially optional: if you had a credit card, you could get everything you needed to survive dropped off at your front door. But the next 75 years aren’t going to be like that; we’re going to need to return to the basic human experience of relying on the people around you. We’re going to need to rediscover that we’re a social species, which for Americans will be hard—at least since Reagan we’ve been told to think of ourselves first and foremost (it was his pal Margaret Thatcher who insisted ‘there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women.”) And in the Musk/Trump age we’re constantly instructed to distrust everyone and everything, a corrosion that erodes the social fabric as surely as a rampaging river erodes a highway.
But it’s not impossible to change that. Joe Biden has been frustratingly dunderheaded about approving new pipelines and oil wells, and hydrocarbon production has been soaring on his watch. He has been much better about trying to restore some sense of national unity—he has been trying to scale down national division by rebuilding left-behind economies, and also by appealing to our better angels. And those angels exist: the most hopeful book for our time remains Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell, which recounts how communities, whenever natural disaster strikes, pull together, just like Vermont this summer. It happens in cities as easily as in rural areas—maybe more easily, since cities are places where the gregarious gather.
An appeal to social trust is not an appeal to some airy idea of universal brotherhood. Vermont Digger, our local news service, had a reporter in a neighboring town yesterday, as it began to dig its way out of the flood. At a washed-out road crossing he encountered a pair of what I think you could only call hippies, trying to join a “Rainbow Family gathering” at a national forest campground nearby.
The two people — who went by the names Scooby Doo and Sparrow — said they had caught the first half of Dead & Company’s final tour before Sparrow’s school bus broke down in Alabama. This week they had traveled from Maine and spent the prior night camping elsewhere.
The duo had heard from two friends on Thursday night who were waiting for them at Texas Falls, estimating that dozens of people were there.
They were looking for dog food for their dog, Bhala, and thought they might have to try Killington or Middlebury.
No offense to Scooby, Sparrow or certainly Bhala, but I’d rather have as a neighbor the next person the reporter encountered at the washed-out intersection..
Charlie Smith, an excavator, trucked loads of material to the washout in an effort to make the road passable.
“I’m trying to make it so people can get home, get groceries, go back to work,” he said. “It feels good to help people. That’s what we do.”
For Smith, the latest storm began with news that flood water had surrounded some of his equipment. He salvaged the gear Thursday night with minimal damage.
“This morning my dad called me at 5:30 and said ‘let’s get going,’” Smith recalled. He expected to go road by road throughout the day.
Neighborliness accompanied by skill in backhoe operation seems like a good combination for our moment in history. And I was even more reassured to get a mass email from the town clerk of my small burg. It outlined which roads were still closed but also reminded people that the evening’s nature talk was still on at the local school.
Please come join us for an evening of bugs after the sun goes down and stay as long as you'd like! We'll attract the night-active insects to a white sheet in the woods, and you can learn about some of our local insects from Middlebury College Entomologist Greg Pask. Feel free to bring a flashlight or headlamp, and no bug spray please (we're trying to attract the bugs!)
So make that neighborliness, backhoes, and a devotion to the world around us, which remains beautiful even this savage summer. We’re in a mess, but together we have some chance of working our way out of it.
In other energy and climate news:
+Is Republicanism as currently practiced compatible with planetary survival? Probably not. The Heritage Foundation, in concert with other rightwing groups, has released a plan for a GOP president to reverse everything useful that Joe Biden has done about energy and climate. According to the Times, Project 2025 (named either for the year the next president will be inaugurated, or the outside limit of these people’s concern for the future)
calls for shredding regulations to curb greenhouse gas pollution from cars, oil and gas wells and power plants, dismantling almost every clean energy program in the federal government and boosting the production of fossil fuels — the burning of which is the chief cause of planetary warming.
The official GOP plan is instead to plant a trillion trees; alas a new study this week found that “would have a minimal effect on halting global warming, partly because of the long lag time for trees to reach maturity and absorb large amounts of carbon. The analysis by John Sterman, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Andrew P. Jones, executive director of the nonprofit Climate Interactive, found that planting a trillion trees would only prevent 0.15 degrees Celsius (0.27 Fahrenheit) of warming by 2100.”
+Picking up on a tactic employed by U.S. utilities, UK gas companies have found PR agents to carry out a massive attack on electric heat pumps.
The PR campaign subjects heat pumps to intense criticism. Powered by electricity, heat pumps are currently set to play a key role in decarbonising heating and replacing gas boilers, which heat around 85 percent of Britain’s homes and account for 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions nationwide.
Negative stories about electric heat pumps have featured in outlets such as The Sun, Telegraph and The Express, in which damning headlines dub the technology “Soviet-style”, “financially irrational” as well as “costly and noisy”. Broadcast media has amplified similar messages on BBC 2’s Newsnight, LBC, TalkTV and GB News.
Meanwhile, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak has vowed to deal with this year’s record heat by…”maxing out” the country’s oil and gas reserves. According to the Guardian, he approved a hundred new drilling licenses for the North Sea, something he said was
compatible with net zero commitments given the anticipated part-reliance on fossil fuels for years to come, saying it was more carbon-intensive to ship oil and gas from other countries.
But experts said this ignored the fact that much of the UK’s imported gas comes by pipeline and tends to be produced more cleanly than its British equivalent. Environmental groups said Sunak’s plan would “send a wrecking ball” through climate commitments.
Tory and Labour MPs said Sunak’s “economically illiterate” announcement was “driving a coach and horses” through previous promises, and warned the prime minister he was “on the wrong side of history” and that modern voters wanted leaders who “protect, and not threaten, our environment”.
In response, Greenpeace UK decorated one of Sunak’s several (unoccupied) mansions with a black shroud yesterday
+Cheeful news: a warming climate is apparently allowing the quick spread of a fungal disease across the country
Fungal disease expert Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist, immunologist, and professor at Johns Hopkins University, says that humans normally have tremendous protection against fungal infections because of our temperature. “However, if the world is getting warmer and the fungi begin to adapt to higher temperatures as well, some . . . are going to reach what I call the ‘temperature barrier,’” he says, referring to the threshold at which mammals’ warm body temperatures usually protect them from infection.
+A new study in Nature finds that warming temperatures should make airplane rides much more turbulent
Here we show using climate model simulations that clear-air turbulence changes significantly within the transatlantic flight corridor when the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is doubled. At cruise altitudes within 50–75° N and 10–60° W in winter, most clear-air turbulence measures show a 10–40% increase in the median strength of turbulence and a 40–170% increase in the frequency of occurrence of moderate-or-greater turbulence.
+Job ad of the week: Royal Bank of Canada, one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel lenders, is looking for a new Head of Climate Transition. One of their responsibilities will be to “Develop and implement effective and lasting responses to Climate Activism.”
Less hilariously, Reuters reports that banks are doing their best to hide the emissions in their portfolios. “Banks with big capital markets operations in the working group argued that they should assume responsibility for only 33% of the emissions of activities financed through bonds and stock sales because they do not have control over the borrowers as they do with loans.”
+Emily Pontocorvo offers a good explainer on hydrogen policy, making a strong case that an upcoming decision by the Treasury Department could be crucial in determing whether the fossil fuel industry will simply get to keep using natural gas to produce the stuff.
The Treasury Department got involved because the Inflation Reduction Act, which Biden signed last summer, created a generous tax credit to make these other, cleaner ways of producing hydrogen more competitive. One method, called electrolysis, involves splitting hydrogen off of water molecules using electricity. The process is emissions-free, as long as the electricity comes from a carbon-free source. Companies will be able to earn up to $3 for every kilogram of hydrogen produced this way. But before anyone can claim the credit, the Treasury has to write rules for what counts as clean electricity.
But one influential Princeton study found that hydrogen production from electrolysis is so energy-intensive that in order to be sure that it has a low carbon footprint, these deals should follow three guidelines: The “booked” clean energy should be generated locally, from a recently-built power plant, and matched to the hydrogen facility’s operations on an hourly basis. Otherwise, you might have a hydrogen plant in New Mexico “buying” energy from a wind farm in Texas that’s already been operating for half a decade. Or you might have that same plant buy lots of local solar power, but then keep operating at night. In either case, a natural gas plant will likely have to ramp up to meet the real-time energy demand.
Without these guardrails, the authors warn, the Treasury could end up directing billions of taxpayer dollars to facilities that emit twice as much carbon as those making hydrogen from natural gas today.
+It turns out that the large language models used in artificial intelligence require incredible amounts of water to cool servers, all too often located in arid areas. As Bloomberg reports,
The race to build large language models used in generative AI has created a surge in demand for more powerful processors. The specialized chips required for AI—broadly known as accelerators—emit so much more heat than general-purpose chips do that data center operators are having to rethink their cooling systems entirely, says Colm Shorten, a data center sustainability expert at real estate investment firm JLL.
Shaolei Ren, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at University of California, Riverside, has conducted research estimating that training GPT-3 in Microsoft’s US data centers directly consumed 700,000 liters of water in about a month—not including the indirect water use associated with electricity generation. The team has also calculated that every short conversation of 20 to 50 questions and answers with ChatGPT represents about 500 milliliters of water.
+Canada’s wildfires—concentrated in the far north—are displacing huge numbers of First Nations people across the country.
The blazes have taken a particularly devastating toll on Indigenous communities because they live on the frontline of many fires and depend on forests for food and their homes are in remote areas that are not a firefighting priority since they are sparsely populated and have few buildings.
“We are basically refugees of climate in this territory,” Mandy Gull-Masty, grand chief of the Cree Nation in Quebec, said. “We are constantly escaping either risk of fire or impact of smoke in the community.”
While no one has been killed by the fires that have threatened Indigenous communities, they have inflicted immeasurable damage to the forest ecology and cultural heritage, disrupting a way of life that’s reliant on hunting and fishing for food.
+Good for Elise Joshi, a Gen Z climate leader, who worked up the nerve to interrupt Biden’s press secretary to ask for climate action
"Excuse me for interrupting, but asking nicely hasn't worked out," said Joshi. "A million young people wrote to the administration pleading not to approve a disastrous oil drilling project in Alaska, and we were ignored. So I'm here channeling the strength of my ancestors and generation."
And good for the pipeline watchdogs Waadookawaad Amikwag, or “Those Who Help Beaver” in Anishinaabe, who uncovered yet another leak in the Line 3 pipeline that Biden allowed to be built across Minnesota. “The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources confirmed it’s investigating the rupture near Moose Lake, south of Hill City in Aitkin County, at a wild rice lake in an area with complex wetlands and peat bogs.”
+Elections matter. Replacing the Trump-like Bolsonaro in Brazil with a Lula administration featuring the tireless Marina Silva as environment chief has apparently managed to cut deforestation in the Amazon 60 percent from a year ago.
The rapid progress highlights the importance of political change. A year ago, under the far-right then president, Jair Bolsonaro, the Amazon was suffering one of the worst cutting and burning seasons in recent history. But since a new administration led by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva took power at the start of the year, the government has penalised land grabbers, mounted paramilitary operations to drive out illegal miners, demarcated more indigenous land and created more conservation areas.
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